A few weeks ago, when stores began to see hand sanitizer shortages, Yahara Bay Distillery began to bottle 140 proof vodka and jokingly referred to it as a “hand sanitizer.”
One of the bar managers had been using a bottle of high-proof vodka with a spray nozzle attached to sanitize the bar, partially in jest to lighten the mood as the COVID-19 pandemic loomed.
However, after a local radio personality enjoying a drink in Yahara Bay’s tasting room asked if he could get his own bottle, the bar manager realized the distillery had a potential new product on their hands. That product has already been donated to several organizations and sold to private clients, and to ensure a supply of ingredients, the company is even recycling stale beer.
Before creating the new product, Yahara Bay stuck with producing just the high-proof vodka, as it was not registered with the Food and Drug Administration to produce hand sanitizer. Even though the “sanitizer” was just bottles of vodka, the demand poured in and Yahara started selling pallets of it.
Some of the early production of the high-proof alcohol went to the State of Wisconsin, to be used at polling stations Tuesday, April 7.
Then, on March 18, the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau allowed distilleries to make true hand sanitizer, as long as the recipe followed the World Health Organization’s regulations and formulation. Essentially, that meant adding hydrogen peroxide and glycerin into the mix.
The first batch was sold out before it was bottled.
Nels Forde, general manager of Yahara Bay, said the distillery then had first responders contact the business for the hand sanitizer.
Forde said that as soon as the distillery had a few dozen cases produced, he drove around delivering bottles to police departments, fire stations, Agrace hospice and emergency medical services. Deliveries were made to Fitchburg, Verona, Sauk City, Jefferson and other communities.
“I said, let’s just run around and get it to people who need it and if they don’t need it, they’ll share it with someone who does need it,” Forde said. “We’re doing everything we can to help everyone we can.”
As the donations were unannounced, some of the recipients were confused.
“We just dropped it off and some people were like ‘do we have to pay you or will you invoice us?’” Forde said.
Forde said that he will continue to allocate some of the sanitizer to donate, but he has a long list of private clients.
“We’ll keep producing as fast as we can, but until we can get ahead of demand, it’s going to be a scramble,” Forde said. “We’ll continue donating where we can, but also selling for the business to remain sustainable for the long haul.”
Forde said many companies are increasing production of related products, including bottle and bottle cap makers and label printers.
Even alcohol is becoming difficult to source, but Forde has found a solution in the form of a constant supply of stale beer.
Frank Beverage Group, a beer, wine and spirits distributor based in Middleton, has been collecting unsold kegs of beer from area bars and restaurants that have closed down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Forde said every distributor around the country has stockpiles of unusable beer.
“Frank has all this beer that has expired or is about to expire. We can put it in our stills and turn it into hand sanitizer, literally turning lemons into lemonade. Frank was creative in contacting us to partner,” Forde said.
The distilled beer becomes a neutral spirit and does not have an odor or flavor.
While Yahara Bay has laid off a few part-time bartenders, Forde said most of his full-time staff have remained on payroll.
“We needed help, and staff pivoted along with our production, and helped where we needed it. The tasting room staff was moved into bottling. We’ve all been busy,” Forde said.
He’s keeping his staff safe and maintaining social distancing by running two eight-hour shifts with small crews, producing hand sanitizer 16 hours a day.
“Give it a month or two and you’re going to have plenty of supply, but right now it’s difficult to get all the ingredients blended up and out to people,” Forde said.